Junkyard Classic: 1979 Mercedes 280SE – Across An Ocean, Up A Mile, And Forty Years Of Stories

Forty years is a long time, but curiously many of us see a forty year old car and for some reason that span of time doesn’t really register.  Perhaps in our mind’s eye we still see the car as it was when new, or how desirable it used to be, or perhaps we are used to some cars generally always being kept in fine shape, certainly expensive ones such as this one.  While there have always been Mercedes beaters (and perhaps today there are more than ever before at a younger age than ever before), seeing an old discarded one that is clearly used up and showing every one of its years and miles is not an everyday occurrence.

So it was with this 1979 280SE from the house that Gottlieb and Karl built.  This one isn’t going to have anyone gnashing their teeth about what a waste it is to have ended up here, and nobody wants to rescue it.  While once undoubtedly a fine example of the brand’s flagship, it’s been heading downhill for a long time now.

In 1979, when this one was new, it was nearing the tail end of its generation.  Built from late 1972 until 1980, the W116 chassis was always an impressive machine, and the first version to officially be called the “S-Class”.  From the beginning until the end there was always a regular wheelbase 280SE in the range, with a straight six featuring fuel injection.  As such it was actually the volume model, selling over 150,000 in that guise.  While we may be more familiar with the diesel 300SD or the longer 450SEL or certainly the brutish 450SEL 6.9 version, Mercedes was steadily shifting regular 280s by the shipload.

Under that obviously replaced hood with zero regard for appearances, thus likely more recent than not, lies the formerly beating heart of the beast.  As stated, an inline six like the best Benzes used to have (and now many will once again feature I-6’s according to recent news), the U.S. version of the DOHC 2.8liter mill produced 142hp and 149lb-ft of torque, or about 20-25% less than the same engine did in Europe, backed by a 4-speed automatic.

I was a little kid when these debuted for 1973 and while the smaller sedans were more plentiful, this is somehow what I always associated with Mercedes, that wonderfully wide rear end with the just as wide rear lights, leaving just enough space for a standard issue european license plate.  Those look like the non-US bumpers too on this rig; while still large, they don’t look anywhere as huge as what I usually see on these.

Fairly capacious trunk volume with a large and well-worn spare tire.  Nicely lined except for the lid, and the high liftover height from before people (except Saab) really concerned themselves with such things.

Obviously some people have had their way with the interior before I got here but it still looks opulent and one can well imagine the luxury evident when new.  The “safety” steering wheel from the days before airbags is interesting with a design meant to cushion and absorb impact as well as the fact that this generation S-Class was the first car to (in 1978) offer ABS as an option, in Europe at least.

But take a look at those HVAC controls, a single dial? Could this be a car without A/C?  I thought the S-Classes of this generation in the US always featured TWO dials or full electronic controls for the further upmarket models.  Or is it possible that this car was a grey-market import and updated with the exterior bits such as headlights as required for a US car?

This sticker in the door jamb seems to indicate that it was imported by or for a Mr. Steve Sweeny as that is no factory tag.  I can’t find mention of “Exotic European Car Center” online but many of these conversion shops closed up shop in the 1980’s when the manufacturers really started cracking down on the practice.  But if this has no A/C, that’d be a tough pill to swallow for a luxury automobile driver, especially as this car showed evidence of lots of time here in Colorado where a lack of A/C might be tolerable but also down in the Dallas area where I know I couldn’t tolerate being in a car without it.

Perhaps the original owner figured that with the sunroof there’d be plenty of ventilation.  Overall this one is a bit of a weird spec.  No A/C, but sunroof, power windows, metallic paint, and the second from the lowest rung engine (there was a carburetted 280S on offer as well in Europe).

Either way, 212,000 miles is quite good for a car of this age but nothing special for a Mercedes.  The gauges offer another clue that this was an import, as the markings on the left gauge are in German and the temperature markings are in Celsius, I have found another 1979 US market 280SE with the temperature in Fahrenheit as well as the oil pressure gauge in PSI instead of BAR.

But those seats do not look like they have 212,000 miles of wear on them, a testament to the quality of materials used in this car. Supremely comfortable, perfect for streaking across the European continent or perhaps the 800-mile Dallas-Denver run in one sitting every month or so for years on end.

This is the first time I realized the fuel filler lid was hinged on the bottom which is a bit of a curiosity.  I suppose it’s easier to manufacture and install/line up that way in this case but still.  It does stop one from spilling that droplet of gasoline on the exterior of the body so if that was the aim I applaud it.  Some of those old gas pumps, you can shake it all you want and there’ll still be a drop to come when zipping, oops, I mean closing the lid.

The tank reportedly holds over 25 US gallons, that’s as much as most fullsize pickups, but engined as this one is should be able to just about reach 20mpg at a steady cruise allowing for an almost 500 mile range.

I never declared this a creampuff and some rust was clearly evident since the beginning of this post, but here’s stark evidence of it being time to let this one go.  That’s rough stuff for around here.  Perhaps if this car did come from Europe it saw some harsh times before arriving here.

Here’s the diagonally opposite (front) corner.  That chrome chickenlip may have hid the first few rust bubbles but eventually it busted out.  I’d hate to see what’s under the chrome, probably almost nothing.

Coventry? Is that a country club in Dallas?  Or a gated condo complex? Doesn’t sound familiar for Colorado but I haven’t been here that long either.

I’ll have to start checking more of these tags for the older cars, I was always under the impression that there was usually a “W” for West ahead of the Germany until reunification.  I know all of my own paperwork always clearly spelled out West back in the day.

Someone snagged the grille, but nobody wants the sealed beam sad jokes of headlights.  Shocking.  Yes, easy and cheap to replace but woefully inadequate compared to what was standard elsewhere for a steed that is capable of running at well over twice the highest top speed in this land back in the day and doing so all night long for as many nights as you’d want it to.

In any case, I too really like/admire the successor W126 to this model, but while that one is pure machine and really sealed Mercedes’ image as the luxury brand for the 1980’s and just powers along (magnificently so, I hasten to add and am taking nothing away from it at all), this generation seems to have a bit more soul and personality.  This one in particular likely has more stories to tell than most and has probably seen more than most as well.  If anyone knows Mr. Steve Sweeny, try to hit him up for some of those stories, I know I’d like to know more.

Related Reading:

Don Andreina’s Outtake on a 6.9

Tatra87’s In-Motion take on an early 280S

Jason Shafer on an even earlier 450SE

Paul Niedermeyer’s CC on a 450SEL 6.9